YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s president and powerful military chief will hold an unprecedented high-level meeting on Friday with major political parties and ethnic minority groups as cracks widen in the fledgling democracy ahead of an election next year.
The talks are the first of their kind and will see opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi meet for the first time with the powerful armed forces chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing - talks the Nobel laureate has sought since she became a lawmaker in 2012.
Friday’s hastily arranged get-together in the capital Naypyitaw comes as a complex peace process with armed ethnic rebels teeters on the brink of collapse and tensions linger over moves by Suu Kyi’s party - backed by 5 million petitioners - to amend the constitution and reduce the political clout of a military that ruled Myanmar brutally for 49 years.
It takes place as U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to visit Myanmar next month for a regional summit amid growing U.S. concerns about human rights abuses, including jailing of journalists and alleged oppression of stateless Rohingya Muslims and ethnic minorities caught in conflict with government troops.
Obama spoke to President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi in separate telephone calls on Thursday, the White House said, without providing details.
Thein Sein, a former junta general, has been lauded for widespread reforms since taking power in 2011 and convincing the West to suspend most sanctions, but critics say those changes are now starting to unravel.
Obama has sought to present U.S. backing of Myanmar’s reforms as a foreign policy success, but Washington has viewed developments in the country with growing concern.On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned and saddened” by reports of the killing in army custody of Par Gyi, a journalist and former democracy activist who once worked as a bodyguard for Suu Kyi.
News of the meeting so close to Obama’s arrival has been met with scepticism in Myanmar, with some calling it theater.
“The government seems to intend to use this meeting in creating a good impression before President Obama’s visit,” said political analyst Yan Myo Thein. “There’s little chance of seeing tangible results.”
The government should instead focus on bringing some unity and openness to a nascent political system that was facing headwinds, he said, adding details of what transpires at the meeting should be revealed “with complete transparency and accountability”.
Despite winning massive popularity at home and abroad, since becoming a lawmaker Suu Kyi has been criticized for her reluctance to comment on contentious political issues, or speak out against the military.
Asked about the talks during an interview on Thursday with Radio Free Asia, Suu Kyi bluntly replied: “Where did you get this information? You should ask those who were invited.”
Next year’s parliamentary election will be the first since 2010, which ushered in a quasi-civilian system that dismantled the absolute control of a military that had ruled since a 1962 coup, 14 years after independence from Britain.
It will also be the first general election that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has contested since it won a 1990 vote that the military ignored. The party boycotted the 2010 poll and Suu Kyi was under house arrest at the time.
Also attending the talks will be Shwe Mann, the influential lower house speaker and chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. A former heavyweight under army rule, he is seen widely as a reformer, but also an astute political tactician with presidential ambitions.
The official purpose for the talks has not been disclosed. NLD spokesman Nyan Win suggested the meeting had been called because of “mounting pressure” and “the current impasse”.
Suu Kyi has previously asked for a “four-party summit” between herself, Thein Sein, Shwe Mann and Min Aung Hlaing, the most influential people in Myanmar politics.
The military holds several cabinet posts and 25 percent of legislative seats, essentially a veto on any attempt to change a constitution it drafted, which needs more than 75 percent support for amendments. The NLD is leading the push to change that, but is expected to face strong resistance.
The meeting risks more turbulence, however, with only six of the 70 political parties and a few ethnic groups invited.
“The president will have to explain,” said Aye Maung, leader of the Arakan National Party, the second biggest ethnic party in parliament, which was not invited.
Christopher Roberts, a Myanmar expert at the Australian Defence Forces Academy, said Obama’s visit was likely a key factor but holding political talks at such a critical juncture would not do any harm.
“They’re past the point of no return. There’s a hybrid system in place, a halfway house, and there’s no easy way to get rid of the military,” he said. “They know they have to work with each other and that they’re in it for the long haul.”
Additional reporting by Martin Petty, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Lisa Shumaker